An End-of-Semester Wish List

dodo-in-tophatMEME

The other night, I graded my last paper of the semester and cracked open the bottle of wine that had been calling out to me all week. As I sipped my single glass of victory, I reflected on the state of my students’ writing.

I couldn’t help but long for them to enter my classes with a better foundation in grammar and syntax, so I came up with a wish list I would like elementary and secondary school teachers to try and fulfill.

  • Properly teach comma use. I want to put a thumbtack,point up, on the chair of every teacher who takes the lazy way out and proclaims, “Put a comma in whenever you pause or take a breath.” They set their students up for a lifetime of comma confusion.
  • Teach other punctuation. I know K-12 teachers are doing this, but I’d appreciate it if they explained that exclamation points shouldn’t end every sentence and question marks should only show up at the end of direct questions. (Oh, and please explain that colons and semicolons are not interchangeable with each other or commas.)
  • Ditch the absolute prohibition of beginning sentences with “because” and replace it with “being that.” Yes, I understand students often end up with sentence fragments if they start sentences with “because.” However, this should not become a lifelong ban. Why not prohibit “being that” instead? Honestly, I can’t think of any good reason for it.
  • Help end creative capitalization. I understand that, in an age of texting and microblogging (Tweeting for the uninitiated), this could be tough. Trying to convince adult learners that the pronoun “I” should always be capitalized is frustrating. Modern texting apps may automatically capitalize it, but students don’t notice. The concept of proper nouns versus common nouns seems to escape them, too.
  • Show students how parts of speech are building blocks to proper sentences. Like parts of an engine or rooms in a building, each part of speech has a role to play to build solid, effective sentences.

The good news, at least for me and my future students, is that the Common Core Standards being implemented in states across America cover these things.

It gives me hope that good grammar, unlike cursive writing, will not follow the path of the dodo.

My English Valentine

english-valentine

Dear English Language,

I love you. Even with all your quirks, I love you.

Let’s face it; you don’t play by the rules much. You’re more into “strong guidelines.” That’s part of your charm. You’re always growing and changing. As frustrating as that can be, I find it really exciting.

Oh, many writers will abuse those changes. They’ll do things that are just wrong and claim they’re all in the name of growth. They’ll misuse words and abuse punctuation. You suffer it all with equanimity.

You are the most global language. In your DNA are bits and pieces of most, if not all, the languages on earth. Add to that the generations of history that peek out constantly, and I can’t help but be beguiled by you.

When we come together, I am held rapt with fascination for your multiple, ever-changing dimensions.

Simply put, I love you,

Annette

What’s in a Phrase?

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Can a phrase be one word?

A little while ago, I decided to do some light reading (Hermione Granger style) and stuck my nose into It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences by June Casagrande.

Such a great title, but I didn’t get very far before I found some areas of contention — not surprising in grammar geekdom. The most glaring is her definition of “phrase.”

In Chapter 3, Ms. Casagrande defines a phrase as “a single word or cluster of words that together work in your sentence as a single part of speech.” In Appendix A, the definition is “a unit of one or more words that function as either a noun, a verb, an adverb, an adjective, or a prepositional phrase.”

This seems pretty straightforward, yet the idea that a phrase can be a single word throws a wrench into the works for me. I’ve looked all over the place — in dictionaries, style books, and grammar texts — and every definition of “phrase” I encounter specifies that it is a group of words. Plural.

“Pshaw, Annette!” you say. “Why concern yourself with such a petty detail?”

I find it hard enough to get people to understand the different parts of speech without complicating things. Ms. Casagrande, in her appendix, gives examples of phrases including regularly (adverb phrase) and enjoy (verb phrase).

Why confuse learners by saying regularly is both an adverb and an adverb phrase? Enjoy (present tense) is a verb; a verb phrase in my mind would be has enjoyed.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m just being too picky. What do you think?

 

 

Don’t Be Hypnotized by Word’s Power

Word hypnotismI remember typewriters. I remember white out and rubber cement.

These are not fond reminiscences of a bygone era I long to return to. Oh, there are times when I wish I had my old manual typewriter. (It had a sweetly smooth keyboard and didn’t need electricity.) But there is no way on earth I’ll give up my computer with its powerful word processing programs!

Ain’t gonna happen!

But, like everything, my favorite computer program, Word, has its ugly side. I just need to adjust and forgive. Let’s look at a few examples.

Autocorrect – I’ve been writing long enough to know when I want a capital and when I don’t. It’s time consuming and frustrating to have to go back and correct Word’s “corrections.” I have shut off most of autocorrect, but there are times when my fingers slip and autocorrect saves me. Why can’t Word read my mind when I’m writing?

Comma splices – Word does not recognize comma splices. As I wade through endless essays, I am always mystified why there are no squiggly green lines helping out those poor, overworked commas. Has our society just decided they’re okay now? They aren’t! Why are so many people semicolon averse?

Fragments – On the other hand, Word seems compelled to warn me that I’m writing sentence fragments when I’m not. I admit there are times when my writing style is a bit different, and it gives Word’s algorithms fits. That’s why English is so much fun.

Stumbling Spellcheck – For a woman whose fingers have a hard time keeping up with her mind, Spellcheck is a godsend. Have you any idea the thousands of times Word has changed  “adn” to “and” for me? Those squiggly red lines provide a safety net for words I never can spell correctly (truly, judgment, accommodate, etc.). However, it’s those pesky words spelled correctly but aren’t used correctly where Word fails miserably. It’s more than just the there-their-they’re type homonyms. I can’t list the number of times defiantly shows up in papers when the writer meant definitely.

Word has so many virtues, it is easy to take it for granted, letting it lull us into a false sense of grammatical security.

Don’t succumb to its siren call! For your own writing wellbeing, become familiar with the grammar guidelines Word can’t handle.

Weekend Wrinkle: Don’t Throw Grammar Stones

Although there are many (too many) times I cringe while reading something poorly written on the Internet, I try to make it a policy not to pick too much on specific people or sites.  The one exception is people who profess themselves as writing experts but who make awful, repeat mistakes.

Hey, I’m not perfect. I know that the minute I throw a grammar stone at someone is the minute I’ll make a stupid error and have a mountain of righteous writers descend upon me.

On the other hand, here are some examples I don’t mind tossing a few pebbles at:

If you're going to talk about writing good headlines, it's a good idea to make your sentences short, clear, and error-free.

If you’re going to talk about writing good headlines, it’s a good idea to make your sentences short, clear, and error free.

This self-professed journalist should not only have corrected the mechanical errors, he should have written intelligible sentences.

This self-professed journalist should not only have corrected the mechanical errors, he should have written intelligible sentences.

Here's a tip: make the first sentence clear and understandable.

Here’s a tip: make the sentences — especially the first one — clear and understandable. (Avoiding sentence fragments is a good idea, too.)

A classic case of why people shouldn't harp too much on other people's mistakes. (Seems like a case of auto correct gone wild.)

A classic case of why people shouldn’t harp too much on other people’s mistakes. (Maybe we can blame it on a case of auto correct gone wild.)

I think I’ll put my “blue pen of shame” away now while I’m ahead.

Weekend Wrinkle: One Word or Two?


At the urging of Mona the dog (head cheerleader), DC the cat (chief scheduler – mealtimes must not be ignored!), and several human friends, we have decided the weekend should start early. As a result, I am moving Weekend Wrinkle to Thursdays.


teacup

“I dunno,” Dis Connect scratched his head. “Should it be one word or two?”

“It depends on how you’re using it,” Grammar Smith noted.

The culprit was backyard.

“If you’re talking about the yard in the back of a house, it’s two words: back yard,” Grammar explained. “If you’re using it to describe something else, then it’s one word: backyard grill.

This is a problem many writers seem to have; when should a word actually be two words? This comes into play when we’re using a compound adjective to describe a noun. In that case, the two words should be one.

Everyday is being misused again,” the dispatcher notified Grammar.

She sighed. She was tired of tracking down such blatant mistakes. She couldn’t understand what motivated writers to get this wrong so often.

Writers strive to write something every day. In this instance, “every” is an adjective describing the noun “day.”

Intense tapping on the computer’s keyboard for hours is an everyday occurrence. In this instance, “everyday” is a compound adjective describing the noun “occurrence.”

Grabbing her trench coat and hat, Grammar walked out into the misty back yard to track down an everyday error.

When to Seek Professional Help: Editing

keyboard

It’s done! You’ve finished your writing project.

You went through the agony of how to get started. You fretted over what words to use and whether they produce the result you want. You drove yourself, everyone around you, and even your pets crazy with getting it written and then revising endlessly.

You’re done, but is the process really over? Do you need someone to edit what you wrote? That’s a question every writer asks, and there’s no pat answer. (Okay, I’m an editor; I thing everything needs to be edited.)

The main thing to determine is the importance of clear, understandable, and professional writing. If mistakes are going to taint your reputation or drive away readers or potential customers, you need to seriously consider working with an experienced editor.

Of course, there are lots of other questions that have to be answered, too.

  • What’s the purpose? Is it a quick e-mail, a marketing piece, a blog, a press release, or a book? The more involved the writing piece is and the more people who will see it, the greater the need for a skilled editor.
  • Who’s the audience? If you’re trying to impress someone, you definitely need the help of someone proficient in written English. We so often can’t see problems with organization and grammar in our own writing. We all (me, too!) need a fresh, competent review of our work to make it sparkle. What many consider sloppy writing errors (misused words, misspellings, run-on sentences) and poor organization can ruin those all-important first – and even subsequent – impressions.
  • What’s the time frame? How quickly does it need to be turned around? So many times, people want things “fast and good.” The problem is that “fast” often leads to errors. We’re in such a hurry to meet a deadline that we can’t put it aside to review later with fresh eyes. With “fast,” we sometimes have to sacrifice “good.” How much not-so-good writing will readers tolerate? If you have a relationship with an editor, it may be possible to squeeze in that review no matter how fast you need to work.
  • What’s the writer’s skill level and experience? Some writers are good with mechanics but trip up on organization or phrasing. Some are great storytellers but can’t spell to save their lives. I once worked with a reporter who was terrific at finding and writing stories. However, she was lousy in mechanics. Anyone reading her raw copy would think she was a terrible writer. As her editor, it was my job to showcase the brilliance of her work. More experienced writers, who recognize and can correct their writing weaknesses, can often squeak by without an editor for some writing, but I wouldn’t make a habit of it for everything.

ROI

Working with a professional editor is an investment in your writing. There are always questions we need to answer no matter what we invest in. We must look at the return on our investment (ROI). Will working with an editor help us keep readers, gain new readers, make our ideas more attractive, put our products and services in their best light, or make the piece more attractive to a publisher?  A good editor will always strive to make your writing as extraordinary as possible.

To learn more about professional editing services, visit AIC Communication Services or e-mail info@aic-communication-services.com.

The Waves of Change in English

A couple of years ago, I traveled to Italy. When we were in Rome, the woman who was acting as our tour guide (a native of Rome) warned us to make sure we crossed the street in the marked crosswalks.

“We have traffic laws,” she half-joked, “but they’re more like guidelines.”

The same can be said for English grammar “rules.” We get ourselves into trouble when we remain inflexible about punctuation, usage, or even word meaning. It is because the language is forever in flux.

I like to think of English as a “mutt” language; its DNA is made up of lots of other languages, and it continues to change. All those invasions of the British Isles over the centuries as well as modern communication connections cause constant transformation of the language.

Like the tide on a beach, the way we use English ebbs and flows. This is what makes English so wonderful – and so very frustrating.

I was talking with someone this weekend on just this subject. We agreed that, in order to break grammar rules, we need to know and understand them first. All great artists break the conventions, but they need to know the rules first and have a purpose when they play with them.

In writing, it all comes back to clarity. Blindly following the rules, such as not ending a sentence with a preposition, can actually make things too dense.

Who are you talking to? versus To whom are you talking?

The second example is correct, but feels stilted and clumsy. On the other hand, if an unnecessary preposition shows up at the end of the sentence, it needs to be purged:

Where are you at? (One of my many pet peeves!)

Years ago, a former boss, now a dear friend, gave me the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, printed in 1975. In only 40 years, we can see how English usage has changed in how and where we use words. Meanings especially are fluid. What was once considered slang has become an acceptable use.

For example, the panel of language experts the authors turned to pretty much agreed that “premiere” (a noun meaning the first performance of a motion picture, play, or television show) should not be used as a verb. Today, however, it is common to use it that way: The movie premiered to great acclaim.

This fluidity of language can drive us crazy if we let it. The main idea is to factor in purpose, audience, use, formality, and, above all, clarity when approaching writing. We never want to make the reader work overly hard to understand what we mean. We leave that sort of thing to lawyers.

So remember, if you are going to wander outside the English guidelines, do it with a purpose and always make sure the content is clear to the reader.

Pair Beauty with Substance

designvcontent

“Oh! You won’t believe our new website. It’s beautiful and so professionally done!”

The young woman, a member of a local nonprofit, was very enthusiastic about the organization’s new website, so I eagerly looked it up when I got home. She was partly right.

The site was visually stunning. The photos were superb, the colors were well used and balanced, and there was just enough animation to be interesting without being annoying. It was everything we like to see in a well designed web site.

Then I started to read.

There were serious (and I mean serious) word use and grammar errors. It’s not like they were buried deep in the content, either. Some were right there in flashing headlines.

It was like opening a beautifully wrapped present only to find a moldy, half-eaten PBJ inside.

On the other hand, you could have the best content in the world, but if it looks like garbage, it will be treated like, well, garbage. In that case, it is like wrapping a diamond in wrinkled newspaper that had already been used to wrap fish.

No matter how stellar the words are, we need to dress them up nicely to get people to look. (This can be a struggle. Take it from someone who has discovered that WYSIWYG isn’t always what you get.)

But getting people to look isn’t enough to make it “professional.” The content — the message — has to be clearly and cleanly written. After all, the purpose of a website is to show people what we can offer them. If we can’t explain it clearly (and without blatant errors), they won’t stick around long enough to discover the gems we offer.

This tension between content and design isn’t new to the Internet. It has been around as long as people have presented writing to a public. There has always been a need to balance beauty with substance.

The good news is that, in our electronic age, it’s a lot easier to fix.

Now all I have to do is try to figure out a gentle way to tell all those nice people that they need someone to copy edit their site…

Flipping — Not Flipping Over — Grammar

flipping grammar

2day were gonna talk bout good grammer & how to teach it?

Go ahead and laugh. These types of writing mistakes are more typical of our graduating high school seniors than we may want to admit. Although it might be fine for text messages to friends, it is totally inappropriate in almost any business communication.

How do we make sure that our students in post secondary education go out into the business world equipped with proper grammar skills? How can we get in the proper practice without having to take up too much class time we’d prefer to spend honing organizational skills?

One thing I have been experimenting with the past couple of semesters in my composition course is flipping the grammar material. I assign students reading and review of a grammar rule or problem along with an exercise. Then I give a quiz at the beginning of the next class. The quizzes don’t count for a great deal, and students are allowed to collaborate on the answers. (My classes are small, so they can usually do it as a group. With larger groups, I try to pair off students.) There are also online practice quizzes and worksheets for additional practice. I have even been creating short videos to help the students learn the concepts. (They aren’t compelling, stellar productions, but they are designed to help students visualize proper grammar.)

The idea is to make students responsible for going over and practicing the grammar on their own. They are expected to be prepared when we go over the concepts quickly again in class. The process is designed to cut down the time spent drilling grammar rules and to concentrate in improving the clarity of and meaning in their writing.

As further reinforcement, I will have students correct mistakes in paragraphs. (Sometimes I call it “Grade the Instructor”; sometimes I even get an F.) They understand that they are responsible for recognizing and correcting grammar mistakes in their own writing.

So far, I’m having mixed results. I think the main problem is getting students to understand the importance of completing the assignments outside of class. Most people dislike grammar to begin with, and dealing with it on their “own time” is not a high priority.

Relevance is important in education. By stressing how proper grammar helps make writing clearer and connecting that idea with how marketable good writing skills are, I try to encourage my students to take the flipped grammar process seriously. In return, I will continue to try to find innovative ways to make grammar, if not fun, at least more palatable.

What kinds of things do you do to help make teaching grammar more effective?